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In Denim, Sustainability Hinges on Cohesive, Honest Storytelling

Though it requires no new technology, science or discovery, one of the biggest challenges ahead for the apparel industry is how to develop an effective message about sustainability to the end consumer.

At Kingpins Transformers in Amsterdam last month, the heads of independent and niche denim labels shared how it feels like the odds are stacked in favor of large companies—whether or not they have the sustainable certifications to back up their claims.

While communication about sustainability is one hurdle encountered by most companies navigating this new terrain, its effectiveness is often related to the size of a company’s marketing budget, meaning small sustainable brands need to be louder and more provocative in their marketing efforts to compete with companies with corporate-size budgets.

“I see it all the time,” said Andrew Olah, Kingpins Transformers founder. “A brand makes an announcement about something they’re doing and it sounds really great, but actually the rest of the industry is laughing because we know what they’re really saying.”

New sustainable initiatives and product lines that have entered the market have been shadowed by a wave of greenwashing and false marketing claims, said Tony Tonnaer, founder of Kings of Indigo. “It’s a jungle out there,” he said. “Everything is sustainable these days.”

And the reality, said Boyish Jeans creative director Jordan Nodarse, is the companies that are actually taking the right steps to be sustainable are the minority.

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“To use the term sustainability because you use organic cotton but you don’t get the certification that proves that the farmer was audited to make sure all the practices of organic farming were done… Does that really make [them] sustainable?” he asked.

A large denim company, Nodarse pointed out, has the benefit of being able to hire a consultant or expert team to guide them on the right path toward sustainability. Ironically, he said too many choose to ignore the advice.

“The more difficult thing for them is actually just listening to these people that actually know what they’re doing, even when they are paying them,” he said. “Everyone has sustainability teams that draft up pages and pages of reports, but then they don’t [act on it.]”

Small denim companies have agility on their side, and perhaps a closer connection to the end consumer. In a proactive move, Kings of Indigo teamed with Tencel in October on a five-day pop-up event in Amsterdam to educate consumers on their sustainable production processes. For Earth Day, Boyish Jeans co-hosted a beach clean-up with Shopbop in California.

“What we decide today, we can move tomorrow,” Tonnaer said.

Small companies are also more aware of the resources coming in and out.

For Nodarse, sustainability boils down to awareness, which he says has the potential to lead to more efficient decision-making. A designer, retailer or consumer who is aware of the ways to reduce waste, carbon emissions and energy in their journey will lead to better products for the environment.

“But you don’t get there without understanding what it is that you’re doing,” he said.

Or with fragmented messaging. Getting an industry on the same page may seem like a pipe dream, but it would behoove companies—big and small—to share their knowledge.

Data-analytics firm Launchmetrics recently shared that Adidas’ drew the greatest “media impact value” for its sustainability marketing efforts. The firm uses an algorithmic measurement to quantify, in monetary terms, the reach and engagement of placements or mentions across print, online and social channels.

Adidas drew a MIV of $13 million. Levi Strauss, on the other hand, garnered a MIV of $3 million.

Whereas trade shows and events have become vessels for information and catalysts for change in the supply chain, Tonnaer said the apparel industry is lacking a stage—be it a virtual or a physical one—that demonstrates these new sustainable ideas to consumers.

“Consumers are very intelligent and they are becoming more and more critical,” he said. “We need to build a bridge between the industry, retailers, brands and consumers and tell honest, open stories and prove it with either blockchain technology or other transparent certifications.”

“We can achieve the same goal and share the same information,” Tonnaer added. “We, as an industry, need to create that platform.”